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Adrenaline the culprit behind going gray

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

The old fairytale about stress or grief turning your hair white has just been given a truth boost. Forthcoming research from Duke University’s Robert Lefkowitz explains how stress hormones impact your body’s ability to heal itself, from merely cosmetic conditions to life-threatening malignancies.

At center stage is the widely known stress hormone adrenaline. This “fight or flight” hormone causes damage that may eventually lead to a variety of conditions from the superficial, such as grey hair, to the serious, such as cancer. Adrenaline is very useful in short, intense bursts if you need to run very fast or exert yourself strenuously for a brief amount of time, but it can wreak havoc on the body if it keeps flooding the body in a continuous barrage – which is what frequently happens in our industrialized, frenetic world. Then adrenaline starts to impact the DNA of our cells, causing widespread breakdowns.

To work out how, the researchers infused mice with adrenaline over several weeks to mimic the effects of being under long-term stress. They discovered that levels of a key anti-cancer protein called p53 fell. P53, sometimes nicknamed ‘the guardian of the genome’, usually springs into action when DNA is damaged, allowing potentially cancerous cells to carry out repairs or, if this isn’t possible, commit suicide. This would clearly become a risk factor for developing cancerous malignancies.

DNA damage is also thought to impact on the cells that go on to produce the pigment in hair. Lefkowitz’s findings, detailed in the journal Nature, also showed that a molecule called beta-arresting 1 contributed to the problems. At some point in the future, researchers may develop a drug that stops this molecule from working and counter the effects of stress, from going grey to being at higher odds of getting cancer.

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A competing theory of graying hair puts the blame squarely on bleach.

The Bradford University study found that wear and tear on our bodies may lead to dangerously high levels of hydrogen peroxide building up in the roots of our hair, blocking the production of pigment.

Hydrogen peroxide, which is produced naturally in the human body, interferes with melanin, the pigment that colors our hair and skin. While the body also produces the enzyme catalase, which breaks down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, it does so only for a while. As we age, catalase production tails off, leaving nothing to transform the hydrogen peroxide into chemicals the body can release. Thus, hydrogen peroxide builds up, leaving us going gray – usually earlier than we had hoped.

Before you curse the hydrogen peroxide in your body, consider this: skin cells produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide as part of the body's oxygen cycle. The chemical serves to kill bacteria. So while it may be contributing to your graying mane, it is also helping to keep you healthy.

In addition to lacking catalase, the researchers found, the follicles of gray-haired people also had far fewer hair-repair enzymes, which in turn drove down production of melanin. This finding dovetails with findings in the current research.